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$26,000 spent to check Utah welfare seekers for drugs

Published July 10, 2013 8:07 pm

New policy • Preliminary data show nine of 394 tested positive; critic calls expenditures a waste.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Preliminary data on Utah's year-old policy to screen and drug test welfare applicants show expenditures of $26,391, with nine people testing positive for drug use and five undergoing treatment.

Of those total costs, $5,531 paid for Substance Abuse Subtle Screening Inventory or SASSI tests that were administered to 4,425 people seeking aid under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program — as required by state legislation that passed in 2012. The remaining $20,860 paid for drug testing of 394 of those applicants — at $50 to $60 per test.

The SASSI test, billed as being 93 percent accurate for adults, is used to rank individuals as having either a high or low probability to abuse drugs or alcohol.

Applicants who rank high must submit to a drug test, and if the results are positive, undergo rehabilitative treatment as part of their employment plan that Utah's Department of Workforce Services oversees.

Gina Cornia, executive director of Utahns Against Hunger, said the state could made better use of the almost $30,000 spent so far. That amount does not include staff costs to administer the SASSI or to pay for treatment programs.

"It seems silly to drug test hundreds. It's not worth the money they're spending," Cornia said, adding that DWS employment counselors could still screen clients for drug treatment the old-fashioned way — through forging relationships.

According to DWS personnel who attended the Wednesday morning advocates meeting at the Cannon Health Building in Salt Lake City, of the 813 SASSI test-takers who ranked high, more than 300 tested negative, 163 chose to abandon the aid application process and 137 were denied eligibility based on other criteria. Others had false positives or took the SASSI test in error or failed to show up for the drug test.

Geoffrey Landward, deputy director for Utah's Department of Workforce Services, said he was not going to suggest any recommendations from the data.

"People can read the numbers and make their own conclusions," Landward said. "This was a policy decision made by the Legislature, signed into law by the governor, and our responsibility is to execute as best we can."

Blanket drug testing of all aid applicants had previously been suggested, but Landward said those costs would be prohibitive. He also questioned whether such a mandate could pass legal scrutiny.

"The TANF program is intended to remove any barriers to employment for those participating — and substance abuse is a barrier," Landward said, adding that SASSI tests serve as a relatively cheap assessment tool at about $1.25 each.

The new data are apt to spur some discussion, he added.

"I don't know if there's a more effective way to implement this policy," Landward said. "Is it the right policy? That's for the Legislature and governor to determine."

cmckitrick@sltrib.com

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